Re: Debunk All Religiosity Equally (D.A.R.E.) -------->Deconstructing the Dead

From: J. R. Molloy (
Date: Wed Jul 11 2001 - 13:56:44 MDT

Deconstructing the Dead
"Crossing over" to expose the tricks of
popular spirit mediums

By Michael Shermer

Like all other animals, we humans evolved to connect the dots between events
so as to discern patterns meaningful for our survival. Like no other animals,
we tell stories about the patterns we find. Sometimes the patterns are real;
sometimes they are illusions.

A well-known illusion of a meaningful pattern is the alleged ability of
mediums to talk to the dead. The hottest medium today is former ballroom-dance
instructor John Edward, star of the cable television series Crossing Over and
author of the New York Times best-selling book One Last Time. His show is so
popular that he is about to be syndicated nationally on many broadcast

How does Edward appear to talk to the dead? What he does seems
indistinguishable from tricks practiced by magicians. He starts by selecting a
section of the studio audience, saying something like "I'm getting a George
over here. George could be someone who passed over, he could be someone here,
he could be someone you know," and so on. Of course, such generalizations lead
to a "hit." Once he has targeted his subject, the "reading" begins, seemingly
using three techniques:

1. Cold reading, in which he reads someone without initially knowing anything
about them. He throws out lots of questions and statements and sees what
sticks. "I'm getting a 'P' name. Who is this, please?" "He's showing me
something red. What is this, please?" And so on. Most statements are wrong. If
subjects have time, they visibly shake their heads "no." But Edward is so fast
they usually have time to acknowledge only the hits. And as behaviorist B. F.
Skinner showed in his experiments on superstitious behavior, subjects need
only occasional reinforcement or reward to be convinced. In an expose I did
for WABC-TV in New York City, I counted about one statement a second in the
opening minute of Edward's show, as he riffled through names, dates, colors,
diseases, conditions, situations, relatives and the like. He goes from one to
the next so quickly you have to stop the tape and go back to catch them all.

2. Warm reading, which exploits nearly universal principles of psychology.
Many grieving people wear a piece of jewelry that has a connection to a loved
one. Mediums know this and will say something like "Do you have a ring or a
piece of jewelry on you, please?" Edward is also facile at determining the
cause of death by focusing on either the chest or the head area and then
working rapid-fire through the half a dozen major causes of death. "He's
telling me there was a pain in the chest." If he gets a positive nod, he
continues. "Did he have cancer, please? Because I'm seeing a slow death here."
If the subject hesitates, Edward will immediately shift to heart attack.

3. Hot reading, in which the medium obtains information ahead of time. One man
who got a reading on Edward's show reports that "once in the studio, we had to
wait around for almost two hours before the show began. Throughout that time
everybody was talking about what dead relative of theirs might pop up.
Remember that all this occurred under microphones and with cameras already set

Whether or not Edward gathers information in this way, mediums generally
needn't. They are successful because they are dealing with the tragedy and
finality of death. Sooner or later we all will confront this inevitability,
and when we do, we may be at our most vulnerable.

This is why mediums are unethical and dangerous: they prey on the emotions of
the grieving. As grief counselors know, death is best faced head-on as a part
of life. Pretending that the dead are gathering in a television studio in New
York to talk twaddle with a former ballroom-dance instructor is an insult to
the intelligence and humanity of the living.

Michael Shermer is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and the author
of How We Believe and The Borderlands of Science.

Stay hungry,

--J. R.

Useless hypotheses, etc.: consciousness, phlogiston, philosophy, vitalism, mind, free will, qualia, analog computing, cultural relativism, GAC, CYC, and ELIZA

We won't move into a better future until we debunk religiosity, the most regressive force now operating in society.

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